La Scena Musicale

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Met Player Free Weekend Ends May 3

This weekend, the Metropolitan Opera is offering a free trial of its Met Player, which is an online streaming service that allows access to over 200 audio video performances including 20 of its recent HD productions from the first three seasons of The Met: Live in HD series.

The trial started on May 1 and ends on Sunday, May 3. Visit to register, no credit card information is required.

For more information, read the press release. will review the Met Player in a future blog.

Wah Keung Chan

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Met Opera in HD: La fille du Regiment

The highly successful second season of the Metropolitan Opera at the Movies concluded with Donizetti's La fille du Regiment, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, two of the greatest bel canto singers of our generation.
Peruvian tenor Florez is certainly at the height of his powers, his reputation as the best in the bel canto repertoire well nigh unassailable. On opening night a few days earlier, after prolonged and vociferous applause from a deliriously enthusiastic Met audience, he repeated "Ah. mes amis" with its 9 high Cs, for a total of 18. This was a break with the Met tradition - other than "Va pensiero" - a choral piece, no soloist at the Met have encored an aria for many, many decades. It was clear that Signor Florez is back and in terrific form. There were some trepidations regarding his vocal health, after a much publicized, month-long cancellation (late Feb. to late March) as a result of having swallowed a fish bone(!) that required a surgical procedure. It was to our great good fortune that the irreplaceable Florez have recovered completely from this accident, and is now singing as well as ever. He also put his hiatus to good use by marrying his German fiancee Julia Trapp in his home town of Lima, Peru at the end of March. His performance yesterday (April 26) was extraordinary in every way. Rarely have we heard such vocal ease, particularly his complete freedom at the top of his range, and his total command of the bel canto style. Besides the vocal fireworks in "Ah! mes amis", his legto and overall stylish vocalism in the "quiet" Act 2 aria was extraordinary. It was a performance to cherish.
With such a high power Tonio, "la fille" had to be special, and French soprano Natalie Dessay fits the bill perfectly. After having sung almost twenty years at the highest level, Dessay has transformed herself from a specialist in the stratospheric soprano roles - Olympia, Zerbinetta, Koenigin de Nacht - to a somewhat lower fach that includes Lucia, Manon, Amina, even Pamina (these last two roles I heard in Santa Fe a few years back), and of course Marie. Melisande is another role that she has sung to great acclaim, a vocally non-flashy - completely lacking in high notes - but supremely effective acting vehicle for her. Rumour has it that a vocal crisis several years ago led to laser vocal cord surgery which necessitated the change in fach. She has actually discussed her vocal problems frankly with journalists. Now it appears that her problems are a thing of the past and she is once again singing beautifully. The voice has greater warmth in the middle and the top is secure, if not with quite the beauty of tone as before. And she remains a singing actress non-pareil. Her Marie was a spitfire, full of energy and spirit. Some might find it a bit too manic, but given the Laurent Pelly delightfully zany conception of the piece, her acting was spot on.
More about Pelly. His previous productions - an incredible La belle Helene and an equally terrific Cendrillon - turned me into a fan. In my mind his La fille is a very fine piece of work but at a somewhat lower level. Perhaps it's me, but I find this French farce not all that funny, and musically it is rather thin, despite a few nice arias. Part of the problem was the excessive amount of dialogue, spoken in French - not all of it translated in the subtitles - that just didn't have the same impact on an English speaking audience. Thankfully with great singers the likes of Florez and Dessay, they managed to lift the musically lightweight material to a high level. On this occasion, they were supported by Felicity Palmer and Alessandro Corbelli, two veterans of the opera stage. Both acquitted themselves with distinction. The only downside was a singularly un-funny Duchess of Krakenthorp by Marian Seldes . Thankfully her contribution was reduced in this revival when compared to previous, more starry Duchesses, such as Montserrat Caballe, in the Vienna revival of this production a couple of years ago.
Conductor Marco Armiliato is becoming more and more a Met fixture, and it is all to the good. He is a singer friendly conductor, and his work, though middle of the road, is always at a consistently high level. He brought much energy and verve to the proceedings this afternoon. The male chorus under Donald Palumbo sounded great. There was only one intermission feature, with the ever solicitous but totally predictable Renee Fleming interviewing the two leads plus Palmer and Corbelli. Dessay's English has improved by leaps and bounds, almost completely accent-free, except for her pronunciation of the word "character". The picture quality was once again on the dark side, likely limited by the projection equipment. I just hope this will be remedied as technology improves in the near future. Three cinemas were put into service at the Sheppard Grande. Despite a totally unexpected, last-minute transit strike, the cinemas were just about full. Likely patrons who had purchased tickets were unable to show up due to the transit strike. The transmission was once again glitch free. Now that the Met in HD season has come to an end, we can look forward to next season, with an expanded list of 10 operas plus a gala opening. I for one can't wait!

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Met Opera in HD: La Boheme

If there is one opera that qualfies as the all-time audience favourite, it is Puccni's La boheme. It is by far the most performed opera in the 125 year history of the Metropolitan Opera, surpassing other popular works the likes of Aida and Carmen. The current Met production by Franco Zeffirelli, first seen in the 1981-2 season with Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras, is the most performed production in the history of this house. It has been given a total of 349 times! Think about it - the Met season is approximately seven months long, with seven performances a week. For the sake of simplicity of calculation, we are not going to worry about the two weeks in January (the last three seasons) when the theatre was dark. This means the Zeffirelli Boheme has been seen every night for a staggering eleven months and three weeks, equal to over one and a half Met seasons! It boggles the mind.

Zeffirelli with his super realism and the Met with its deep pockets are a perfect match - witness his Turandot, Tosca, Cav & Pag, and Carmen, all mega-productions that have become audience favourites. Critics on the other hand have not been so kind. Many complain that the massive and overly busy productions dwarf the singers, a criticism not ungrounded. Still for sheer opulence, you can't beat Zeffirelli. The other major criticism is his total lack of "concept" - again a valid comment. If ever there is an "anti-Regietheater Regie", it would be Zeffirelli, who is always faithful to the composer's original intentions. In a Zeffirelli production you won't find a Violetta dying in an AIDS ward, or a Don Jose being executed by a firing squad. For my money, there is always room for a traditional production, and this La boheme is as traditional as it gets.

This revival stars Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas. Joining them are Basque soprano Ainhoa Arteta (Musetta) and French baritone Ludovic Tezier (Marcello). The rest of the cast are made up of a mix of young artists - Oren Gradus (Colline), Quinn Kelsey (Schaunard) and a Met stalwart - Paul Plishka (Benoit and Alcindoro), all under the helm of Italian maestro Nicola Luisotti. It was shown today at the Sheppard Grande in four cinemas, a total of 1500 seats, all sold out in advance. The huge crowd was not disappointed. This performance was about as good as one is likely to encounter in the opera house these days.

The glamorous Angela Gheorghiu's Mimi is a bit too overtly flirtatious and calculating in Act One for my taste, although by Act Three, she was sufficiently tragic to elicit the sympathies of the most hard-hearted in the audience. Her singing was beautiful, although I find her timbre a bit cool and not sufficiently Italianate. She "chested" a few times in Act One, perhaps the voice was not yet sufficiently warmed up. Much of Mimi's music is written in the middle, an area of Gheorghiu's voice that is not ideally full. I would have preferred a modicum of portamento - it is a virtue, not a sin, in verismo and Puccini! Her Italian parlando lacks natural ease. (I admit I can't get the voice of Renata Tebaldi out of my mind when it comes to this role) Ramon Vargas may not have the most distinctive of tenor sounds, but overall, his Rodolfo was a pleasure. There was also good chemistry between these two.

The other couple were not on the same level. Soprano Ainhoa Arteta acted up a storm, but there was no hiding the fact that she made a shrill and quavery Musetta. There is a moment in Act Four, when Mimi asks "Chi parla?" to which Musetta replies "Io, Musetta". This is a moment when any half-way decent Musetta gets to show off her smooth legato. Well, this little phrase defeated Arteta completely. As Marcello, Ludovic Tezier's lyric baritone was pleasant if a bit anonymous, his acting insufficiently detailed, especially in his scene with Mimi in the opening of Act Three. There was no intensity coming from him; his facial expression was blank. He wasn't listening to her; he basically just put his hands in his pockets and stopped acting! Tezier was completely outsung by Quinn Kelsey, who was a particularly well sung (and well fed) Schaunard. To his credit, Kelsey, given his large size, managed the strenuously physical staging in Act Four without difficulty. Oren Gradus (Colline) lacked the sonorous bass necessary to make his Coat Song effective, something done to perfection in the past by the veteran Paul Plishka, now as Benoit/Alcindoro. A welcome addition to the roster, Nicola Luisotti conducted an incisive and lyrical performance, although I find his intermission interview and his body language a bit overly solicitous.

Like a comfortably cluttered and lived-in house, the sets in this Boheme is starting to look a tad frayed after so much use. Having seen this production a half dozen times at the Met, I have come to take this huge show for granted, so it was good to have the camera taking us backstage to witness the setup of the Cafe Momus scene, done in three and a half minutes - I was awe-struck by the enormity of the task. The videography was happily traditional here, unlike the quirkiness of the split-screen technology employed in Tristan. The Sheppard Grande audience should thank its lucky stars that once again, the satellite signal was flawless, with only a split second of frozen picture. I saw the show in Cinema Three, where the full house and the still air made it a little uncomfortable, especially for those sitting higher up. But other than that, it was an extremely enjoyable experience.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Royal Opera House in HD: Frederick Ashton's Sylvia

Given the wildly successful Metropolitan Opera at the Movies venture instituted by the visionary Peter Gelb in December 2006, other opera companies are jumping on the bandwagon. La Scala and San Francisco Opera have started their own series at selected movie houses in Europe and the U.S., and Opera Australia is rumoured to get in on the action soon. Sadly none of these shows are available in Canada.

But not to worry – the venerable Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) is bringing its products to Canadian movie theatres. In a joint venture among Royal Opera, Opus Arte, and Digiscreen, the best of opera and ballet from ROH are making their way to the Empire Theatre chain across Canada. It begins this coming Sunday (March 30), with a showing of the late Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, starring the recently retired Royal Ballet prima ballerina Darcey Bussell. It will be followed by the terrific production of Carmen (April 19) starring the fabulous Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role, and new tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose. Other productions in the initial offering include three more ballets – Romeo et Juliette (May 24), Tales of Beatrix Potter (June 7) and The Sleeping Beauty (July 21). It appears that ROH is bringing its most popular and accessible shows, with the best singers and dancers, to its line-up. I have seen the Carmen and it really is a great performance - Antonacci and Kaufmann burned up the stage! It is not to be missed.

Yesterday I attended the press screening of Sylvia at the Empress Walk Theatre in North York. Like the Met shows, this ROH performance is in HD, although unlike the Met, everything in this line-up is pre-recorded. In fact this performance of Sylvia is several years old. Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton first conceived this work for the Royal Ballet in 1951 as a one-act ballet for Margot Fonteyn. It was last performed in 1965. Shortly before his death, Ashton expressed the wish to revive this ballet. Royal Ballet's Christopher Newton recreated the ballet based on photographs and sketches in honour of Ashton. Now the role of Sylvia was taken by Royal Ballet's most famous ballerina, Darcey Bussell.

Set to a score by Leo Delibes, Sylvia is your typical Romantic ballet. Shepherd Aminta is in love with Sylvia, who accidentally kills him with an arrow meant for the God Eros, who in turn shoots an arrow into Sylvia. The upshot of this is her falling in love with the dying Shepherd. Meanwhile, the lecherous Orion kidnapped Sylvia for his harem, but she escapes. Eros brings Aminta back to life and the two lovers are re-united. The 1951 version by Ashton was only one act, but later he expanded it to three short acts. The screening yesterday was short and sweet, lasting only two hours, even with a 20 minute intermission. For the opera fans among us, this intermission is for wimps since we are used to sitting through long operas, like the marathon six hours of Tristan und Isolde the previous week, but never mind....

Taped some years ago, Bussell was at the height of her powers here as Sylvia. Her dancing has clarity, precision, and a luminosity that is of the highest order. Partnering her is the Aminta of Roberto Bolle, a fine dancer though somewhat below the level of Bussell. Thiago Soares is a macho Orion, while Martin Harvey is a rather precious Eros. Graham Bond's conducting is good if a bit anonymous, perhaps to be expected in this genre of ballet. The sets and costumes are expectedly sumptuous. Unlike the live Met telecasts which are by satellite and thus subjected to the vagaries of weather and other factors, these ROH shows are pre-packaged in hard discs sent to individual theatres. As a result, the picture and sound are flawless.

If there is one criticism, it is the dim quality of the picture. I am told that this is due to the limitation of the projection equipment. Still, I wish someone can explain to me - if a regular movie can be so bright that it is blinding, why are these telecasts , whether it is the Met or the Royal Opera, so dim? I was told by a theatre manager last year that the technology will catch up and everything will be different in a couple of years. For me, it can't happen soon enough. For now, we should be grateful that we can see these performances without having to travel acrosss the Atlantic. Yes, the lack of "real time" and intermission features mean it is less exciting than the Met telecasts. In fact, the performances offered by ROH are all available on DVD, but there is something to be said about seeing it in a huge screen that most of us cannot duplicate at home! So for now, I will be happily attending these shows.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Met in HD: Tristan und Isolde

The current run of Tristan und Isolde at the Met has had more than its share of high drama, and not always the desirable kind. It all began with the indisposition of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. This was supposed to be the much anticipated reprise of his Tristan, one of his most celebrated roles. And he was paired with soprano Deborah Voigt in her first Met Isolde. With these two great singers, supported by Wagnerian luminaries Matti Salminen and Michelle DeYoung, it was a highly anticipated event.

But things did not go smoothly from the start in this ill-starred revival. Heppner was feeling unwell throughout the rehearsal period, suffering from chills and fever. Doctors in New York misdiagnosed it as a "simple" case of virus. According to news report, he flew back to Toronto to undergo tests at the North York General Hospital. He was subsequently diagnosed as having a blood-borne infection that has abscessed in his pelvic region, requiring heavy doses of antibiotics and a surgical procedure to drain the infection. Heppner is still scheduled for the remaining two performances this coming week, although the chance of his singing is unknown. He was replaced in the orchestra rehearsal and the final dress by another Canadian, tenor John Mac Master, who was picked to sing opening night. I heard the broadcast on Sirius Radio. Reportedly suffering from allergies, Mac Master struggled in the middle and lower parts his voice, particularly during the lengthy Act 2 Love Duet. He was able to summon sufficient resources and sang an honorable Act 3. In the end, he had to face, undeservedly, boos from a few members of the Met audience at the final curtain. However, it should be noted that the second solo curtain call, he was met with only cheers.

Given the unfortunate reception for Mac Master, the Met management felt it necessary to find another cover. American tenor Gary Lehman, who has had Wagner experiences but had not sung Tristan previously, was quickly pressed into service. He sang the second performance and was well received by the audience. Like a comedy of errors, it was Voigt's turn to get sick. She walked off the stage during the Act 2 Love Duet due to stomach upset. The curtain came down the the performance resumed shortly with her cover, American soprano Janice Baird. Baird is a well known Wagnerian in Europe and is scheduled to sing Brunnhilde for Seattle in summer 2009. Both leads had a success in the second performance, but the drama didn't end there. The staging of the opening of Act 3 has Tristan prostrate on a raked stage with his head pointed downstage. In the third performance, a malfunction of the stage machinery sent Lehman into the prompter's box, close to the open flame which was part of the staging. The performance came to a grinding halt. Lehman was not hurt and the performance resumed in about 8 minutes with no further incident, thankfully.

With the string of mishaps, the fourth performance yesterday, telecast in movie theatres worldwide, understandably put the production team and the more knowledgeable members of the audience on edge. I am happy to report that everything came together and the result was a terrific performance witnessed by a large international audience. Deborah Voigt appears to have regained a few pounds of the huge amount of weight she had lost. While not everyone agrees that weight and voice have any direct relationship, all I can say is that in her case, she sounds better than she has been since her gastric bypass surgery two years ago. For my money, her modest weight gain now may well have contributed to her improved vocal estate and overall stamina in this punishing role. The voice is better supported, and the top firmer and less shrill. The first of her two high Cs in the beginning of the love duet was particularly strong. Throughout the opera, she sang with gleaming tone, in crystal clear German (unlike the mushy German of Michelle DeYoung, the Brangaene), only tiring during the Liebestod. That last ten minutes found her struggling with flat intonation, particularly near the end, when she fought hard to stay on pitch and largely not succeeding. This is forgivable given the overall quality of her performance. Her acting was more involved than I had previously experienced. She was partnered by American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who has a notable career in Europe, including Bayreuth, in the heldentenor fach. Scheduled to make his Met debut as the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2009, this performance marked his unscheduled debut, and it was an auspicious one. His Tristan combined beauty of tone with impressive stamina, unflagging in his vocalism throughout the lengthy delirium scene in Act 3. His acting was less interesting, but given he had no rehearsal, it was understandable.

The rest of the cast was strong. Eike Wilm Schulte sang firmly as Kurwenal; Michelle DeYoung an unusually youthful Brangaene, more sisterly than matronly. She started tentatively and sounded underpowered, but quickly warmed up to give an estimable performance. And it was a pleasure to hear the magnificent "black bass" of Matti Salminen as King Marke. It appears age is finally catching up with this great singer, evidenced by an incipient slow vibrato that has crept into his voice. But he is still head and shoulders above the others. James Levine has been much praised in Wagner and for good reason - his conducting has all the power and sweep one has come to expect and he managed to make the five and a half hour opera go by in a flash.

Now to the production itself. I saw this in the house some years ago with Heppner and Eaglen; and that run was subsequenly telecast and released on DVD. I have to say I am not too fond of the Dieter Dorn-Jurgen Rose production, which I find idiosyncratic and visually unsuited to the video camera. With this new attempt which draws upon new HD technology, some of my original complaints have been dispelled. Canadian Barbara Sweete, hired by Peter Gelb to do the telecast, liberally employed split screens and multiple images. It has the effect of creating movement in the opera where there is none. Remember we are dealing with an essentially static work, accentuated by a minimalist, highly formalized production. Sweete succeeded in introducing a certain visual variety. When the multiple images first appeared in Act One, I found the effect striking. But by Act Two, its frequency had increased to such an extent that it was almost distracting - a case of too much of a good thing perhaps. Unlike others who have commented negatively on this, I *liked* the concept of multiple images when it is used judiciously, and in a way that does not impede the drama and the overall context of the piece. Given this technique is still in the experimental stage at the Met, some of these issues will likely be resolved out in future telecasts. On this occasion, there were breathtakingly beautiful moments throughout - particularly memorable was the closeup of the two lovers on a dimly lit stage during a quiet moment near the end of the love duet. Moments like that are simply not accessible to the audience in the theatre, no matter how powerful the opera glass! In the theatre when I last saw the production, the two lovers were seen in silhouette, given the back-lit stage. There was simply no visual nuance possible. In fact, one critic (who shall remain nameless) made the nasty remark that the silhouettes of Heppner and Eaglen looked like two large sacks of garden leaves! What I am driving at is that this production poses special challenges for the live audience and the TV camera. Given the constraints, I thought the videography of this telecast was superb.

Technically, this performance as seen at Cinema 6 at the Sheppard Grande represented the first time that the satellite transmission was flawless - no frozen picture, no distorted sound, just five and a half hours of pure enjoyment. If I were to quibble, strangely the sound in Act 3 was much louder than Acts 1 and 2, and near the upper limit of human tolerance. Other than that, I have no complaints. So kudos to the Met and Sheppard Grande. Let's hope this continues!

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Met in HD: Peter Grimes

The Met in HD season continued yesterday with a telecast of a new production of Peter Grimes. It replaced the 40-year old, completely realistic Tyrone Guthrie production that had served the Company well over the years. Some of my most memorable opera-going experiences involved that old production - Vickers as Grimes and Johanna Meier as Ellen Orford in 1984, and later performances involving Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Ben Heppner. But stylistically the Guthrie production was really showing its age, so it was time that the Met retired it with a new one. The originally announced Grimes was tenor Neil Shicoff, whom I believe has sung it in Vienna. But somewhere along the way, Shicoff was replaced by the young American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. Since I had not seen Shicoff as Grimes I can't say with authority, but frankly I can't imagine that he would be better than Griffey, who as far as I am concerned, was born to sing this role. I saw Griffey as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at Glimmgerglass in 1997, and I count that as one of the most transcendent operatic experiences of my life.

So it was with great anticipation that I attended the show yesterday. In a nutshell, the musical values were equal to, if not surpassing, my expectations. Griffey was magnificent as Grimes. Having seen Vickers in this role, I must say the Canadian set the standard by which I measure all subsequent Grimes. Griffey is certainly more youthful, more likable and less menacing - less savage - than Vickers. Griffey's high, clear, sweet tenor is simply a joy to the ear, his top more secure than Vickers, and head and shoulders above that of Robert Brubaker who sang it in Toronto a few years ago. Griffey's Grimes reminds me more of Heppner than Vickers's - beautifully sung and affectingly acted, and unusually sympathetic for an anti-hero.

Partnering Griffey was soprano Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. Having seen her in a half dozen roles - among them Blanche, Tatiana and Elisabetta, I must say Ellen is probably her very best role. She totally embodies the character - I like her quiet strength and her humanity. Again, a rather youthful character that plays well against Griffey's youth. Vocally, other than a loss of focus at the extreme top once or twice, Racette sang wonderfully, her Embroidery Aria was exquisite.

The third principal, Balstrode, was assumed by baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore. I was slightly disappointed by him. I find an older singer works better in this role, in the mode of a Thomas Stewart for example. Physically and dramatically, Michaels-Moore lacked a commanding presence and vocally he didn't make a big impression. He was outsung by another baritone, the debuting Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose golden-voiced Ned Keene and handsome stage presence oozed charisma at every turn. Grimes is really an ensemble opera, with some wonderfully detailed characterizations. Standouts in this production included Felicity Palmer, who sang strongly and was perfectly cast as Mrs. Sedley. Also excelelnt was the Auntie of Jill Grove, and John De Carlo as Swallow. The quartet for the women was a highlight of the performance. Donald Runnicles proved masterful on the podium, his conducting was a perfect balance of power and lyricism, achieving great clarity in the orchestration. The Storm music in Act One was incredible (if only it were matched by the action on stage, but more about that later). And I must say I haven't heard the Met chorus sounding so good in a very long time. For years, this chorus - particularly the women - had been the Achilles heel of the Company. With the arrival of Donald Palumbo, it has slowly but surely undergone a significant and long overdue transformation.

With its superb musical values, this Grimes would have been definitive if only the production itself measured up. I am sorry to say that it did not. Set designer Scott Pask's unit set is basically a soaring wall of wood panels that moves upstage and downstage, a structure that serves all three acts. It is placed quite far downstage throughout the opera, leaving a relatively small staging area, creating (perhaps deliberately) a claustrophobic and oppressive feeling. The problem with this design is its two-dimensionality. Despite the basic realism inherent in the structure, there is little that is truly realistic in the way it is used. During the storm scene for example, there is no suggestion of wind nor rain - not one person get wet! No howling of wind, no ruffled dresses. It stretches the imagination that this "wall" represents the town hall, the pub, and Grimes hut - it's really quite confusing for those new to the opera. The suggestion of scene change comes really only from the text and not from what one sees on stage. The singers and the large chorus are clustered close together up front, or perched behind various windows and doors on the multi-level structure - visually it creates a flatness that is much like a typical broadway musical, ultimately robbing the piece of its potential dramatic power. I couldn't help but compare the Doyle production with the excellent Tim Albery production for ENO that was also staged in Toronto several years ago. The latter has much more clever use of multimedia tricks to suggest the storm, and the staging for Grimes' hut - and the tragic fall of the apprentice - is much more effective. From this regard, the Doyle production falls flat, literally and figuratively. The saving grace is that the strong music values makes one overlook the design shortcomings. Perhaps some of the directorial and design elements could be altered for future revivals, although I am not holding my breath.

On to the telecast itself. Shown in only two cinemas at the Sheppard Grande - and the second cinema was not full - the size of the audience was probably the smallest of all the Met telecasts so far at this venue. It was hosted by Natalie Dessay, who spoke with an accent, but she was totally intelligible. And frankly, it was a nice break from the over-exposed Renee Fleming. The interviews were pretty much standard fare - principals, director, and designer. The most interesting segment was a live relay to Aldeburgh, England - Britten's hometown - where 250 people were watching the live telecast. The transmission itself had two very minor glitches - frozen picture, each lasting about two or three seconds, one occuring at a crucial moment when Grimes struck Ellen. The audience let out a collective gasp but fortunately the transmission resumed. There were the usual ads for upcoming telecasts, and understandably Ben Heppner's name was nowhere to be seen, now that he has officially withdrawn from the March 22 performance. Let's hope the Met finds a decent replacement for Heppner. We will soon find out in a week's time!

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Met Tristan und Isolde Suffers Second Setback

Deborah Voigt is the latest star to fall sick in the Metropolitan Opera's current production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. According to the Associated Press, soprano Deborah Voigt left in the middle of the second act Friday night because of a stomach ailment and was replaced by understudy Janice Baird.

Voigt sang the opener but didn't sound at her best Friday and had trouble with the high notes during the first act.

"She was very heroic," Met general manager Peter Gelb said. "She told me before the second act began that she was feeling sick this morning but she didn't tell us because she didn't want to disturb us. She wanted to be very supportive of Mr. Lehman."

After the first act, Voigt spoke with Gelb and said she was ill.

"We agreed she would start the second act and see how it went," Gelb said.

Baird, Voigt's cover singer, was put on alert during the first intermission, which lasted about 10 minutes longer than usual, and by the start of the second act was standing by.

Voigt signaled near the beginning of the second-act love duet that she couldn't continue and hurried offstage. Music director James Levine kept conducting. Then the curtain came down, Lehman started singing and the orchestra stopped.

An announcement was made that Voigt suddenly had taken ill. Baird got into the costume that Voigt had been wearing and replaced her about 10-15 minutes later. Baird and Lehman received enthusiastic applause at the end of the act.

The production opened on Monday, March 10 with Canadian tenor John Mac Master taking over for an ailing Ben Heppner, who announced that he was still indisposed through the March 22 Simulcast.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Met in HD: Manon Lescaut

Puccini's third opera and his first major success, Manon Lescaut had its premiere in 1893. Although its popularity isn't quite on the same level of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, this opera has earned a rightful place in the standard repertoire. For me, it represents verismo at its best. If you are a tenor fan, you'll love his four arias and the extended Act Two duet. And of course the title role has been a great vehicle for many a spinto soprano the likes of Tebaldi and Olivero. Indeed this piece demands great voices and strong stage personalities. I remember the last time the COC did it, the soprano (who shall remain nameless) was so singularly lacking in vocal allure and dramatic verisimilitude that the performance fell totally flat. The audience responded with the most tepid applause I've experienced at the COC. To be sure, great Manon Lescauts don't grow on trees. Even the Met had not staged this opera for eighteen years, the last time with Mirella Freni. So there was considerable excitement and interest over the current revival.

I am happy to report that the Met's revial is a triumph. First, it is cast from strength, with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role. Since her win in the first Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, Mattila has built her enviable reputation first in Mozart, then in the German and Slavic operatic repertoire, as a great Eva, Elsa, Jenufa, Katya, Lisa, Tatyana, Arabella, Salome, and Leonore. In more recent years, she also had success as Elisabetta and Amelia, and she is one of the most glamorous Hanna Glawari one is ever going to encounter on the opera stage. But Puccini? I was among the skeptics as to whether Puccini would be a good fit for her, since her Nordic sound with its cool timbre and relatively "straight tone" would not seem ideal in the "blood and guts" verismo genre. She defied the critics by singing Manon Lescaut in her native Finland to great acclaim in 1999, and more recently she has scored a triumph in this role in San Francisco and Chicago. Partnering her on this Met revival is Italian tenor Marcello Giordani, who is having a big season there as Pinkerton, Romeo, Ernani, and Des Grieux. Rounding out the cast is American baritones Dwayne Croft as the callous brother Lescaut and character baritone Dale Travis as Geronte.

Seen and heard on Saturday Feb. 16 at the Sheppard Grande, this Manon Lescaut proved to be another big success. Three cinemas were totally sold out, but I was told by Greg the manager that the upcoming Boheme is so popular that it will be shown in no less than four cinemas, and tickets are going fast. Unlike last season when the signal was hit or miss, the satellite feed this year is much more reliable. Other than a little problem with the subtitles at the very beginning, and a six-second glitch of distorted picture and loss of sound - thankfully occuring after "In quelle trine morbide"! - the transmission was flawless. I give credit to Sheppard Grande for being so organized when it comes to crowds. At intermission, theatre staff were positioned in strategic locations in the washrooms to ensure proper traffic flow. Cinemas were spotless, and the newly built concession a nice addition. However, the highly perishable sandwiches (chicken caesar wrap, tuna salad etc.) were sitting on the counter while they should instead be refigerated - a potential food safety issue.

This quarter-century old production of Manon Lescaut appears to have undergone some refurbishing. It still looks fine, with Act Two particularly sumptuous. With a live audience AND a movie audience, the balancing act to satisfy both can be tricky. In the house, one is used to large gestures so those sitting in the gallery can still see what is going on. Heavy make-up is the order of the day, lest singers' faces will look washed out to those sitting at the back. But such exaggerated acting and heavy make-up would look ridiculous at closeup, in High Definition no less! So I think both were considerably toned down for the benefit of the camera. At intermission, Mattila casually mentioned that she is 47. She remains remarkably youthful, but there is no point in pretending that she is the embodiment of a teenage Manon, especially when closeups cameras are so unforgiving when it comes to her wrinkled forehead. Still, all is forgiven when one encounters such exceptional vocalism. No, hers is not a particularly Italianate sound, but it didn't matter on this afternoon. Her two high Cs and loads of Bs on this occasion were thrilling. It made up for her relatively weak middle and lower ranges. Her Manon is also dramatically nuanced, vulnerable and sympathetic. As Des Grieux, Giordani may look a bit mature to be a young student, and his singing wasn't particularly elegant. But he was an ardent Des Grieux, with a completely secure high register. Act One was a bit slow - it always is in this opera, but gathered momentum in Act Two. By the last two acts, Mattila and Giordani burned up the stage and they received a well deserved ovation. American baritone Dwyane Croft was good if a little anonymous in the rather thankless role of Lescaut. Dale Travis, whom I saw last summer as an unimpressive Don Alfonso in a Santa Fe Cosi fan Tutte, was excellent as Geronte, a character role. Perhaps the greatest revelation on this afternoon was the conducting of James Levine. Not known as a Puccini conductor (despite his professed love for Puccini at the intermission chat), Levine's best work has been reserved for Wagner, Strauss and Verdi. So it came as a complete surprise how committed and involved he was in an opera he had not touched in more than twenty years. His conducting on this afternoon had all the passion and excitement one could possibly want, drawing torrents of sound from the orchestra at the climaxes.

There you have it. Perhaps not a Manon Lescaut for the ages, but overall a very satisfying performance on a wintry afternoon.

> Pierre Bellemare's review [in French]

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Met Cancels Opera Pay-Per-View On-Demand

Call it a rare miscalculation for Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, who didn't count on the outcry from the movie theatres who were showing the Met's highly successful live in HD. According to a story in the New York Times, the Met has cancelled its on-demand pay-per-view telecasts for the season citing concerns that the 30-day delay was not long enough.

"There was this real outcry from the movie theaters," said Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. "We were not aware they were going to feel this way until we announced we were doing this." He added: "We are not a movie. We're a live transmission."

Under agreements with major Hollywood studios movies usually take much longer to reach on-demand services. Mr. Gelb said the theater operators might have worried about alienating the studios by allowing a shorter lag. He said he hoped to start the on-demand showings next season, for which the schedule of opera transmissions has not yet been made.

> Metropolitan Opera Live in HD
> Stories about HD Opera

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Luisa Fernanda with Placido Domingo at the Movies

Opera fans are enjoying an embarrassment of riches these days. Since last season, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has been bringing its best productions live to selected movie theatres in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and on a delayed basis to Australia and Japan. The huge media attention and sold out houses at every showing amply demonstrated that there is an audience out there hungry for the opportunity to see live opera for a fraction of the cost of actually travelling to New York and paying big bucks for tickets. Despite being thousands of miles away from the Met, opera fans treat the events as "real occasions". And the older demographics of an opera audience is unusual - you won't find a quieter, more attentive or appreciative bunch. Unlike a typical teenage movie audience, opera folks have the money to buy more upscale foods, they aren't rambunctious, don't make a mess, don't chat incessantly or make noise, except to applaud the artists on the screen. For the opera companies and the movie theatres, it's a win-win situation.

With the enormous success experienced by the Met, other opera companies are jumping on the bandwagon. The venerable La Scala showed its opening night Tristan und Isolde at selected movie houses in Europe and the US; Opera Australia and San Francisco Opera are also experimenting with non-satellite digital transmissions on a delayed basis. But so far none of these are coming to Canada - with one exception. Teatro Real of Madrid, an "A" house in Europe, has been showing its products through a partnership of Opus Arte and Digiscreen in the Empire Theatre chain and four independent repertory theatres in Canada with little fanfare. I knew nothing about it until my publisher called to see if I could write a review. A quick e-mail secured two media passes to yesterday's performance of Luisa Fernanda, a zarzuela starring megastar Placido Domingo. It was showing at the Empress Walk 10 of the Empire Theatres chain in North York. It is a short stroll north from the Sheppard Grande, where the Met has been showing its operas. Compared to the Sheppard Centre, Empress Walk is newer, better maintained, nicely designed with plenty of concession choices for those who want to grab a bite or a drink. The cinemas are immaculately maintained, and the staff offering friendly and efficient service. There was even a washroom attendant at the door - I give the theatre chain an "A" for effort!

Fearing it would be another sold out event, I decided to show up an hour early to secure a good seat. I needn't have worried. Shockingly, the single cinema showing the opera was practically deserted, even with Placido Domingo on the playbill. The Met experiment has demonstrated that there IS an audience for opera at the movies. True - fans are always attracted to a live event, and the Teatro Real productions are "canned". And zarzuela isn't a particularly big draw in Canada since we don't have a large Hispanic population. Still, if the product is good, the fans will come out. It is clear that Empire Theatres have a great deal of work to do in the publicity department. There was no mention of this in the local newspapers that I could find. I did an informal survey of my many opera friends. Except for the three friends that actually showed up yesterday, none of my other friends were aware of this event. But then, neither was I two days ago!

I have to admit my knowledge of zarzuelas is limited, except to say that it is Spanish and folksy, highly romantic, full of pretty tunes and colourful costumes. The story of Luisa Fernanda is your typical love triangle, with tuneul, rather uncomplicated harmonies and orchestration. The piece is also short - even with a 20 minute intermission, the show was over in about two hours. According to a friend who was recently in Madrid, "local" zarzuelas don't always have the best singers, but with the great Domingo in this show, you can't do better than this! Afterall, he sang as a kid in a zarzuela company in Mexico ran by his parents! As Vidal Fernando, Domingo sang with his trademark burnished tone. Despite looking a tad mature, he could still conjure up the image of an aging romantic hero, in the vein of a Don Quixote. Opposite him was the excellent Luisa of Nancy Fabiola Herrera. This Canarian-born, American-trained mezzo is currently at the Met singing Carmen. Rounding out the cast is Spanish tenor Jose Bros. A high tenor in the tradition of a Juan Diego Florez, Bros looked a bit young to be the Colonel Javier Moreno, but his clarion tenor was a pleasure. If the musical values were high, the production itself was strictly budget-wise. The battle scene was reduced to a few silhouettes projected onto the backdrop, and until the last act, the only props onstage were two dozen white chairs, and a tiny wooden model of the city of Madrid sitting on the side! A saving grace was the conducting of the highly experienced Jesus Lopez-Cobos. The picture quality in this HD moviecast is better than the Met's satellite transmission - no glitches and the sound is better. I spoke to almost everyone at the cinema, and they all enjoyed it. So it is a shame that so few people turned out. With more publicity, I am sure opera fans will show up. I think it is important for opera lovers to show up to these events, to show our support. When the next show is announced, I'll be sure to mention it in this blog. Stay tuned!

> More articles on HD Opera

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Macbeth du Metropolitan Opera

par Pierre Marc Bellemare

Giuseppe Verdi : Macbeth

« Simulcast » du Metropolian Opera House de New York
Le samedi 12 janvier 2008, à 13 h 30

Distribution : Zelko Lucic (Macbeth), Maria Guleghina (Lady Macbeth), John Relyea (Banquo), Russell Thomas (Malcolm), Dimitri Pittas (Macduff), Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs (Dame de
compagnie), James Courtney (Médecin).

Production conçue et mise en scène par Adrian Noble

Choeurs et orchestre du Metropolitan Opera House de New York dirigés par James Levine


Verdi, comme Shakespeare avant lui, a conçu Macbeth à la fois comme un drame privé (l'histoire d'un couple de criminels dévorés par le remords) et un drame politique (une histoire d'usurpation et de guerre civile). En transférant l'action du Moyen Âge au vingtième siècle, Adrian Noble a accentué la dimension politique. Il a ainsi rendu un fier service à la musique en faisant valoir les scènes de foule, notamment celles du quatrième acte, où le couple maudit n'apparaît pas et que l'on a donc souvent tendance à négliger. Par contre, lorsque certains détails de costume ou de décor attirent trop l'attention sur eux-mêmes - que l'on songe à l'attirail ridicule dont sont attifées les sorcières ou à la présence incongrue d'une jeep militaire dans le finale -, sa « vision », si imaginative soit-elle, tombe dans l'anecdotique et, ce faisant, cesse d'intéresser.

Par bonheur, les scènes centrées sur Macbeth et sa Lady ne souffrent pas de ce genre d'encombrement visuel. Elles se déroulent dans un espace sobre organisé autour de quatre grand piliers qui, selon le contexte, deviennent les arbres d'une forêt ou les colonnes d'une salle de château gothique. C'est dans cet espace, et autour d'un panneau qui parfois y descend, que les deux protagonistes peuvent se livrer en toute liberté à l'exploration de leurs rôles respectifs – des rôles difficiles, complexes et tourmentés, ainsi que nous le rappelait le Maestro Levine, un instant avant la représentation.

M. Lucic et Mme Guleghina forment le couple Macbeth idéal, lui retenu, elle déchaînée.

Depuis deux ou trois ans, Zaljko Lucic se multiplie sur les grandes scènes lyriques. Il ne chante à peu près que du Verdi, et aucun des grands rôles que ce dernier a écrits pour les barytons ne semble lui faire peur. Serait-il l'héritier, si longtemps attendu, du manteau des Tito Gobbi et des Leonard Warren ? Il est trop tôt pour l'affirmer. Sans doute a-t-il une très belle voix et un sens indéniable du drame, mais il n'a pas encore acquis cette personnalité distincte, cette sonorité tout à fait personnelle sans laquelle un artiste, si doué soit-il, ne peut vraiment prétendre au titre tant convoité de baryton Verdi.

Les opéraphiles sont très divisés au sujet de Mme Guleghina. Il est révélateur que ces divisions tendent à opposer ceux qui ne connaissent la diva ukrainienne que par le disque ou la radio et ceux qui l'ont à la fois vue et entendue, soit sur scène, soit sur DVD. Les premiers ne manquent pas de souligner les imperfections de sa technique et les multiples approximations qui affectent son approche du texte musical. Maria Guleghina est une interprète inégale qui a ses mauvais jours et, même ses meilleurs jours, des moments difficiles, y compris le samedi du simulcast. Ses admirateurs le savent, mais cela ne les empêche pas de rétorquer à ses critiques : Sans doute avez-vous raison, mais quelle bête de scène ! En effet, on ne saurait le nier : la Guleghina est une actrice née, une tragédienne extraordinaire dont l'art doit presque tout à l'instinct et peu à la réflexion ou à la méthode. Ses DVD, de plus en plus nombreux, témoignent de ce que, à son meilleur, son Abigaille, à Vienne, en 2001 (TDK,) peut être aussi impressionnante que sa Lady Macbeth, hier au Met ou en 2004 au Liceu (Opus Arte). Mais sa Madeleine de Coigny, à Bologne en 2006 (TDK) et plus encore sa Tosca à la Scala, en 2000 (TDK), ont de quoi laisser songeur...

Le problème de la Guleghina, à plus ou moins court terme, est que Verdi n'a pas écrit vingt rôles comme Abigaille et Lady Macbeth. Quoi d'autre pourrait-elle chanter pour continuer à progresser dans ce style intensément dramatique et quelque peu survolté qu'elle a choisi d'adopter ? Verdi, son compositeur fétiche, n'a pas grand-chose de plus à lui offrir dans cette veine. Le belcanto est évidemment exclu (quoiqu'elle ait tout récemment tenté de s'attaquer à Norma). Le vérisme ? Ce n'est pas évident. Puccini ? On pourrait (peut-être) l'imaginer en Turandot, mais il n'y a qu'à l'écouter chanter « Vissi d'arte » pour douter qu'elle ait la subtilité et la finesse qu'exigent la plupart des autres emplois de sopranos pucciniens. Peut-être espère-t-elle finir, comme Rysanek, chez Strauss et Wagner, auquel cas il faudrait qu'elle solidifie sa technique pour mieux discipliner sa voix.

Entre-temps, son interprétation très personnelle du rôle de Lady Macbeth, « toute d'une pièce », demeure un spectacle sonore et visuel qui mérite d'être préservé pour la postérité. On espère que le Met aura la bonne idée d'en tirer un DVD.

Du reste de la distribution, il n'y a que du bien à dire. John Relyea et Russell Thomas se sont, comme toujours, montrés excellents dans leurs rôles de soutien, de même que très appréciés du public new-yorkais. Quant au ténor Dimitri Pittas, un nouveau venu, il a immédiatement séduit : on ne demande qu'à l'entendre à nouveau, alors même qu'on s'interroge sur ce qui a pu arracher une larme à son oeil gauche (en gros plan !) à la fin de sa grande scène. Un tendre et profond sentiment ou... un morceau d'oignon ?

Côté jardin et côté cour, on a pu constater que ce n'était pas pour rien qu'Adrian Noble a présidé pendant près de quinze ans aux destinées de la Royal Shakespeare Company : il sait comment transformer une masse amorphe de choristes et de figurants en un véritable acteur collectif.

Enfin, à l'orchestre, on continue de s'émerveiller des ressources que James Levine peut tirer d'un ensemble qu'il a lui-même dans une large mesure recréé depuis les nombreuses années qu'il le dirige.

Le prochain simulcast du Met aura lieu le 16 février. On présentera alors Manon Lescaut de Puccini.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Met at the Movies: Hansel and Gretel

The second installment of the current Met in HD arrived on New Year's Day. It happened to coincide with a fierce snowstorm that descended on Toronto just hours earlier. But you would never have guessed looking at the huge turnout at the Sheppard Grande in Toronto. Perhaps there was one surprise - the audience demographics remained as superannuated as ever. I spotted all of six children the whole afternoon! Despite the bad weather that can sometimes affect reception, the performance in Cinema Three went smoothly. There was only, literally, a split-second loss of sound, which the theatre manager assured me was the fault of the Met. He also said he personally went up to the theatre roof before the show to make sure the satellite dish was free of snow...

Unlike Toronto, the Met performance was teeming with kids. Afterall, this was a special performance put on for the telecast, and at an hour suitable for youngsters. Holiday Season at the Met usually brings lighter fare, such as the fabulously entertaining Julie Taymor production of Magic Flute last year. But one can hardly call this Richard Jones/John Macfarlane production from Welsh National Opera "light fare", or frankly, even "entertaining". This very production was telecast in the UK several years ago and I managed to see it. So this time around, it came as no surprise to me, although I must say I was once again struck by Richard Jones' singularly dark vision. It seems that under the fanciful patina of many a Grimm's tale lurks a cruel and gritty heart. Germanic children stories have a knack of scaring the bejesus out of their target readers. OK, perhaps these fairytale operas are meant for adults, not kids. (If you are familiar with the other Humperdinck opera, Koenigskinder, I think you'll agree with me) Rather than downplaying the darker side of human nature, the Jones production puts it front and centre.

If Met audiences were expecting grandly colourful sets with flying angels, gingerbread houses, dew fairy with her magic wand, a jolly sandman, and a rousing ride by the witch on her broomstick, they were sure to be disappointed. Given the central theme of this production is hunger and its aftermaths, one can sort of understand the perverse decision of setting the three acts in three different kitchens. Act One is set in the traditional kitchen of the family - no problem there. Act Three is in the witch's kitchen. There's no forest in the problematic Act Two, just a kitchen cum dining room, with Hansel and Gretel resorting to sleeping on the floor. The fourteen angels are obese chefs, cooking up delicacies in the chidren's dreams. The only suggestion of forest is the leafy wallpaper and the humanoid-trees. The colour scheme of the whole production, with the exception of a few splashes of colour here and there, is unappealingly monochromatic. Originally designed for the WNO with its smaller stage, this production is much too small for the Met stage, and dare I say unworthy of the Met. It also singularly lacks magic - where is the technical wizardry that we know the Met is capable of? If any opera needs the illusion of magic, it would be this one.

At least the proceedings were partially redeemed by a good cast. The Witch, an unrecognizable Philip Langridge inside an enormous bodysuit, could have been a sister of Mrs. Doubtfire. This Witch didn't have a nasty bone in her body - she kept smiling, even inside the oven. One almost feel sorry for her! Former soprano Rosalind Plowright, as a suicidal Gertrude, was more unsympathetic than usual. She also sang with acid tone and strident top notes. Alan Held was a jolly and vocally sonorous Father. As the children, soprano Christine Schaefer and mezzo Alice Coote both sounded fresh, although Schaefer does not have an especially sweet sound. They also played their parts to the hilt, just right for the 3800-seat Met theatre, but over-the-top given the numerous television close-ups. The new English translation by David Pountney was colloquial and approachable, although much of the words didn't come through, especially in the high voices. Despite the sinister and decidedly un-Romantic goings-on on the stage, conductor Vladimir Jurowski brought out the full measure of lyricism of the score from the wonderful Met orchestra. The intermission features with Joe Clark was interesting, although I must say I am getting a little tired of the overly cheerful and solicitous Renee Fleming as the intermission host.

Final thoughts? I'd loathe to take a child to this show as his/her first Hansel and Gretel. It will likely give a young person a distorted view of this opera, not to speak of a jaundiced view of human nature in general. At the risk of sounding didactic about all this, as I see it fairytales function to entertain, but also to elucidate, to educate the young, to teach them right from wong. Which culture advocates cannibalism, even as revenge? The darkness that pervades in this H&G, justified as a reflection of "reality" or modern-day sensibilities (as suggested by Christine Schaefer in the intermission interview) is a sad commentary on contemporary society. Children grow up fast enough, why expose them to the ugliness of adults before their time? Those who enjoy opera directors updating and deconstructing works of the past at any cost may like this show. But to me this is a particularly mean-spirited attempt at an "update". I think I have had my fill of Richard Jones' vision.

Joseph So

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

San Francisco Opera Joins HD Cinema Broadcasts

More arts groups will join the trend to show arts productions at the cinema in light of the Metropolitan Opera's successful Live in HD, as we reported in this blog last week. The San Francisco Opera announced yesterday that they will be showing 6 pre-recorded High Definition operas from March to November 2008 in a four-year agreement with The Bigger Picture, a subsidiary of Access Integrated Technologies, Inc. See their press release (PDF format).

According to an article in the New York Times,
San Francisco Opera officials said they would use the digital format increasingly chosen for Hollywood feature films, pointing out that the Met mainly uses projection systems used for advertising in movie theaters.
In publicity materials the San Francisco Opera said, "the quality is clearly better on digital-cinema-quality projectors," compared with the Met's broadcasts, but otherwise deferred comments on the issue to Jonathan Dern, a co-president of the Bigger Picture.

"It looks better, it sounds better and it is the standard for digital cinema," Mr. Dern said. The operas are expected to begin in all of the 50 leading markets, he said.

But the Met and San Francisco differ in one crucial area: The Met shows its operas live. San Francisco will transmit them after the fact.

"Being live is at the heart of our approach because we're creating basically satellite opera houses," said Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager. "That's what makes this more than a canned experience." Mr. Gelb also said the Met had gone into movie theaters before the Digital Cinema technology began spreading.

Showing operas at the cinema can be quite lucrative. Last Saturday's Met Opera: Live in HD of Gounod's Roméo et Juilette (the first of their 2nd season) reached 97,000 viewers and took in $1.65 million according to the company's blog. The question is whether San Francisco Opera and also Opus Arte's approach of presenting edited pre-recorded opera with a better picture quality can match this kind of turn out. The Met at the Movies has the advantage of being live events and benefit from free PR from the associated buzz, and as we hypothesized in our earlier blog entry, it's going to take some marketing effort to match the Met.

San Francisco Opera's 2008 lineup, with their own star-studded cast, are productions from the Summer and Fall 2007 season:

  • Giacomo Puccini - La Rondine
  • Camille Saint-Saëns - Samson and Delilah
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni
  • Philip Glass/Christopher Hampton - Appomattox
  • Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly
Addendum: Meanwhile, The Globe and Mail reports that La Scala will also be getting into the act with their own 6-opera HD broadcast season, which will but available in North America only in the US. The series has already started in December 2007 with Aïda. The others are:
  • Tristan und Isolde (January 2008)
  • La Traviata (February 2008)
  • Maria Stuarda (March 2008)
  • La Forza del destino (April 2008)
  • Il Trittico (May 2008)
See the Emerging Pictures website for the list of participating theatres and cast info.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Met at the Movies: Romeo et Juliette

The second season of Met at the Movies got off to an auspicious start yesterday, with Romeo et Juliette. I attended the show at Cineplex's Sheppard Grande in Toronto, in Theatre 5, a large and clean theatre with a huge screen, very comfortable chairs and good sound. Last season's technical glitches appears to be a thing of the past - the satellite transmission was flawless yesterday. Although I didn't ask the theatre manager for confirmation, I believe the four theatres were completely sold out. The audience typically was older - I didn't see any young people, which is a shame. I imagine the New Year's Day show of Hansel und Gretel will be a different story.

It was very nice of Sheppard Grande to put on a wine-and-cheese tasting before the show, featuring cheese trays and very nice Jackson Triggs Red and White wines. I really wasn't expecting this, so my compliments to the management! The event was organized to promote the expanded cafe menu. Unlike typical movie theatre offerings of hot dogs and pop corn, now patrons can also purchase such items as chicken or veggie wraps or delicious sushi from Bento Nouveau. The promotion certainly got me to make a purchase that normally I would not have. I was also impressed with how clean the theatre was, free of the usual sticky spilled pop on the floor. These and other improvements made for a very enjoyable Saturday afternoon at the movies.

This performance of Romeo et Juliette starred Russian diva Anna Netrebko and French tenor Robert Alagna who replaced an ailing Rolando Villazon. While I was disappointed at Villazon's absence, Alagna proved to be a worthy replacement. Both took some time to warm up - Netrebko's opening aria had smudged coloratura, and Alagna sounded a little dry of voice. Near the end of Act 1, both were in fine form, particularly Netrebko whose gleaming voice was a pleasure. Her dark hued lirico-spinto sounded full and opulent, her irrepressible personality in full display. Romeo is a perfect vehicle for Alagna, who has sung this to great acclaim in the past. This afternoon, he was a suitably romantic and ardent Romeo. His "Ah leve-toi, soleil" was beautiful, perhaps just a bit too stentorian in his top notes while more chiaroscuro would have been preferable. The chemistry between the two was palpable - the "floating bed" scene was postively steamy, complete with "R-rated" body positions! It helps when you have two singers who also are such attractive people.

The production by Guy Joosten was strong on Renaissance themes - projections of the sun and planets, the zodiacs, and a small black circle at the bottom of the sun projection that I assume was the "transit of venus". Given that Venus is the planet of love, this is an interesting symbolic touch. Placido Domingo frankly exceeded my expectations in the conducting department. In past performances I saw, his baton could be a little rigid and he wasn't responsive to the singers - like the Boheme last season, when he was booed. Yesterday, he was really quite masterful. No matter how you look at it, Domingo is a phenom. In the interview with Fleming, he said that he has sung 43 roles at the Met, and a career total of 125 roles, a phenomenal number.

The supporting cast was generally strong. Bari-hunk Nathan Gunn did a star turn in the minor role of Mercutio, and Isabel Leonard was excellent as Stephano. Jane Bunnell, a Met regular, was a properly matronly Gertrude, while the celebrated British bass Robert Lloyd was a fatherly Friar Lawrence. The various fight scenes were realistically staged and stood up well to the camera. Indeed, the most impressive aspect of this show was the videography. The overhead shots and the backstage views were all stunning. I spoke to some friends and not everyone was happy with the intermission features and the behind the scenes cinema verite touches. Not me, I love it! If I were to nitpick, I think Renee Fleming tried a little too hard as the interviewer. All in all, this was a great show and it bodes well for the next seven telecasts this season.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

High Definition Opera and Ballet Heat Up in December

Worldwide, the innovation of the last season was the Met Opera at the Movies Series. Such was its success that other art forms and other competition are poised to enter the marketplace.

This Saturday (December 15th), the Metropolitan Opera begins their second season of the Metropolitan Opera: Live in High Definition with Gounod's Romeo and Juliet with a star-studded cast: Russian diva Anna Netrebko as Juliet opposite the Romeo of Roberto Alagna who replaces the ailing Rolando Villazón; Placido Domingo conducts. The Met will increase to 8 LIVE High Definition videocasts from 6 shows last year, with an equal number of encore presentations, usually three weeks later. In Canada, 100 theatres of the Cineplex chain and Empire Theatres (maritimes) will be showing the series. In the US, these HD presentations will also be available on pay-per-view according to an article by Associated Press's Ronald Blum.

Ballet is also getting into the act. The season's hot ticket is Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and the National Ballet of Canada will show their sold-out December 22nd matinee performance at Cineplex theatres in Live HD. Read the press release from Cineplex.

Not to be out done, Britain's Opus Arte, a leader in opera and ballet on DVD, in collaboration with Montreal's DigiScreen (a Daniel Langlois company) will be showing recorded and edited High Definition versions of operas and the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker in selected movie theatres across Canada, the US and Europe; in Canada, Empire Theatres picks up the Nutcraker plus four independent cinemas in Montreal, Toronto, Waterloo and Vancouver.

Montreal's Cinema du Parc gets the ball rolling on December 15 and 16 with Verdi's La Traviata recorded in 2006 at the Theatro Madrid. The coincidence of scheduling head-to-head against the Met did not escape reporters. This series is likely to get off to a slow start as there was little marketing or PR. Without coordination of the offerings, the series lack the feeling of an event; each city has different programming except for the December 22 Nutcracker which competes directly with Cineplex again. According to DigiScreen's news release and website, the lesser known Spanish zazurella Luiza Fernanda will screen on January 19, 2008, but not at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal which will show La Bohème on January 12-13.

The Opus Arte / DigiScreen HD picture is even better than what I remember of last year's MET HD and the surround sound is superb.
According to Cinema du Parc's Marc Lamothe, the theatre installed special proprietary HD equipment and the tape is similar to HD Beta. I had the pleasure of viewing a preview screening of Traviata and the experience is well worth the $20 admission. As Violetta, Norah Amsellem gave a masterful and touching performance; she looked quite the part too. Jose Bros was convincing as Alfredo and Renato Bruson shrugged off a rough start to sing a strong performance. Pier Luigi Pizzi's 1950s sets is beautiful. Although he has announced programming only through January, Lamothe plans more shows in February and March and possibly beyond in the Saturday and Sunday afternoon slot.

Here are our picks through January:

December 15: Romeo and Juliet (MET). Montrealers: If it's sold out, head to La Traviata (Cinema du Parc, Montreal)
December 16: La Traviata (Cinema du Parc, Montreal)
December 22: Nutcracker - Toss up between National Ballet and San Francisco
Dec. 23, 29, 30, Jan. 5, 6: Encore San Francisco Nutcracker (Cinema du Parc, Montreal)
January 1: Hansel und Gretel (MET)
January 5: Encore
Romeo and Juliet (MET)
January 12: Verdi, MacBeth (MET). Montrealers: If it's sold out, head to La Boheme (Cinema du Parc, Montreal)
January 13: La Boheme (Cinema du Parc, Montreal)
January 19: Luiza Fernanda (Toronto, Waterloo, Vancouver)
January 26: Hansel und Gretel (MET)

Adult Price: $19.95


> Metropolitan Opera
> Cineplex
> DigiScreen
> Cinema du Parc

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